Trip Planning 101: How to Budget for Your Disney World Vacation

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Let’s face it, a trip to Walt Disney World can be an expensive undertaking; a good budget can mean the difference between a relaxing vacation and a major migraine.

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There are plenty ways to conserve funds and still have a magical vacation. I’m going to walk you through the process of creating a budget for your trip, and suggest some areas of potential savings. What you should know right off the bat is that planning an accurate and economical trip budget is going to involve some math, some research, and possibly some hard decisions. As a first step, download the TouringPlans Budget Planning Worksheet.

You’ll see that there are seven main areas in which you’ll spend money on your vacation:

  • Transportation
  • Lodging
  • Theme Park Tickets
  • Food
  • Activities
  • Souvenirs
  • Miscellaneous

Let’s go through these one by one to see where you can find information on obvious costs and hidden costs, as well as where you can find information on ways to save money.

TRANSPORTATION

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The main get-to-Disney transportation options are flying vs. driving. In some cases, the choice will be clear; if you’re coming from Tampa then you’re driving, if you’re coming from the UK then chances are you’re going to fly (or get very wet :) ). However, for most of the rest of us, the decision may not be so easy.

Your ultimate choice must be based on real numbers – not only the cost of plane tickets vs. gas, but also factoring in all related expenses. For example, if you’re flying, you’ll need to get on the phone or search the airline website for hidden fees such as baggage or onboard snack charges. Fliers should also consider the cost of parking or taking a taxi to the airport, tipping for baggage handlers, and other related expenses. Even if you are using frequent flier miles, many of these ancillary charges will apply. You may also want to consider the opportunity cost of using frequent flier miles. Would using your miles for this trip impede your ability to take a more expensive trip later on?

Drivers must consider not only the cost of gas, but also meals on the road, wear and tear on the car, and possibly more on-the-road entertainment. Longer drives may even include a night in a hotel along the way, depending on the length of the drive and the number of drivers in your party. For a good rough estimate of gas cost on your trip, try consulting AAA’s Fuel Cost Calculator.

Additionally, your fly/drive decision will impact transportation charges once you’re in Orlando. For example, if you’re flying and staying at a Disney resort hotel, you have the option to use Disney’s free Magical Express bus service to get you to your hotel. If you’re flying and staying off-site, you’ll need to pay for a car service or rent a car to get to your hotel. If you’re driving and staying off-site, you will need to pay for parking at the theme parks (unless you are a Walt Disney World Annual Passholder) and possibly also at your hotel. The Swan and Dolphin are particularly notorious for their steep parking rates.

When looking at the cost of flying, there are now dozens of online tools and apps that can help you locate the most cost effective flight. Popular choices include Kayak, Google Flight, Trip Advisor, Expedia, Orbitz, Priceline, and Travelocity. You may want to check out a recent New York Times comparison of air travel search sites. These tools make it easy to experiment with your flights to find the best deal. Try playing with departure dates or number of connections. Sometimes a Saturday night stay or a brief stopover can save you hundreds of dollars.

If you decide to fly to Orlando, many of the sites above also offer discounted rental car opportunities. When renting a car, be sure to check your personal auto insurance policy and your credit card benefits. These often make the purchase of insurance on a rental car redundant. Declining insurance on the rental can also provide big savings.

LODGING

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As a starting point, log on to disneyworld.com and get a price for your preferred hotel during your travel dates. This will tell you the standard “rack rate” for the room. You’ll also want to check the room and package special offers page of the Disney website. This highlights the promotions Disney itself is offering.

A little more sleuthing can often uncover discounted prices on the exact same room. Twice this year I have saved about $20 per night at the Pop Century simply by booking through Expedia rather than through Disney directly. I had no loss of Disney benefits, I still got Magical Express service, Extra Magic Hours, and the like, I just paid less for them.

If you’re looking for room discounts, try asking a travel agent or using one of the online services listed in the transportation section. Additional discounts might be available for Disney annual pass holders or AAA members. The wonderful independent website mousesavers.com is another great source of discount information. You may even want to tinker with the timing of your reservation as a cost variable.

Another rule-of-thumb is that if cost is your primary concern, then staying at an off-site hotel may be a big money saver. While this often the case, be aware that some off-site hotels tack on additional fees not represented in the room rate. For example, the non-Disney-owned Swan and Dolphin hotels add a host of incremental charges to your bill. These add-ons can add up fast. Before you settle on an off-site stay, pick up the phone and ask what additional fees you might expect.

THEME PARK TICKETS

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The best place to start for park ticket pricing is the TouringPlans.com Ticket Calculator. The Ticket Calculator makes it easy play around with variables and see the real price differences between several choices. For example, a few clicks will show you that once you’re visiting for several days, the price of adding another park day has minimal impact on your admission ticket price.

While you’re figuring out how much park tickets will cost, don’t forget to consider the price of the popular evening parties at the Magic Kingdom if you’ll be traveling during the fall or winter. You’ll also want to consider the price of admission to other nearby attractions if you’ll be venturing off campus to see the Wizarding World at Universal Studios, SeaWorld, LegoLand, or NASA.

Another area worth investigating is the purchase of a Disney World annual pass. Annual Pass holders are allowed discounts on items including some room rates, some tours, some dining, and much more. Depending on your situation, buying an annual pass work as a savings tool, even if you won’t need to fully use it for park admission. Check out our post, When Does A Walt Disney World Annual Pass Make Sense for more thoughts on this.

FOOD

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Planning your food budget takes some serious number crunching. Some Disney guests swear by the Disney Dining Plan (available to guests staying at the Walt Disney World resort hotels), but by no means does the Dining Plan make sense for everyone. To see if the plan is right for you, take a few minutes to look at our detailed menus and pricing for Disney restaurants. Ask yourself some questions and map out a few days of sample eating for your family. Will we eat full breakfast or will a muffin and coffee do? Will we eat dessert with lunch and/or dinner? Can our children share a meal? Do we eat appetizers? … and so on. By really pricing out several days of eating, you can extrapolate your actual food budget needs.

Don’t forget to factor in the cost of snacks you bring from home or buy at a local grocery, as well as the price of tips and alcoholic beverages, which are not included on the Dining Plan. Be aware that many Disney restaurants tack on a surcharge during peak seasons such as the winter holidays.

On the cost savings side, many restaurants offer discounts to Disney Vacation Club members, Disney annual pass holders, Disney Visa holders, and other affiliations. If you’re an annual pass holder or Florida resident, you’re eligible to purchase the Tables in Wonderland discount card, which has been a huge saver for my family. I ALWAYS ask my server what discounts are available.

One cost savings measure might not be all it’s cracked up to be. I’m talking about “Free Dining,” a promotion that Disney has run several times in recent years. I’m going to leave it up to the extremely capable Tom Bricker, who does a great job of explaining the pros and cons of free dining.

ACTIVITIES

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While there is certainly plenty to do at Walt Disney World with just your theme park tickets, there are also many ways to enhance your experience with activities and entertainment. And, no surprise, many of these items cost money. For example, strolling through Downtown Disney is free. But then your child sees the oh-so-enticing-and-not-so-free Characters in Flight balloon and begs for a ride. For my family of five with older children, that 10-minute ride is $90 proposition.

Of course the best way to economize on these activity extras is to simply say “no,” but you may want to indulge a bit with that balloon ride, a visit to the spa, or a round of golf. Pricing for these items is readily available online or with a call to 407-W-DISNEY. Factor them into your budget if you’re planning to partake. If you’re in anti-budget mode, you may want to see how much it would cost to do ALL the extras at Disney World.

SOUVENIRS

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The purchase of souvenirs is another area where saying “no” is your biggest budgeting tool. However, as I discussed in a previous post, coming home with absolutely no souvenirs is unrealistic. You can use our guide to souvenir pricing to get a better idea of how much you’ll want to set aside for take-home items. And remember, there are many souvenirs you can find at Disney World that will cost you absolutely nothing. Check here to learn more about free things at Disney.

While you’ll likely not get away without souvenirs for your kids, you can often skip souvenirs for friends at home. Does your dog walker really want a Mickey sweatshirt? Do you absolutely have to bring a mug back for your child’s teacher? You may be able to easily trim these items from your budget.

MISCELLANEOUS

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This is where everything else settles: stroller rentals, PhotoPass or Memory Maker purchases, shipping fees, kennels, and so on. Not all of them will apply to all guests. As with nearly everything else in your budget, it pays to shop around for these miscellaneous items. For example, there are several ways to save money over renting a stroller from the Disney parks. You can save money on airline baggage fees by doing some laundry while on vacation, but then you’ll need to factor the cost of washing into you budget. Again, play around with numbers to see what works for you.

So what’s your budgeting process? Where have you found ways to cut corners? What do you spend money on that I forgot to include? Let us know in the comments below.

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Posted on January 19, 2014

18 Responses to “Trip Planning 101: How to Budget for Your Disney World Vacation”

  • I find I can relax the most if I have paid for all the big stuff up front. I don’t mind paying $20 here and there for tips and souvenirs, but I don’t like spening $120 for a family meal a couple times each day. We also like sit down meals multiple times each day, so for us the delux dining plan makes sense. Will we use every credit? No. For us it’s worthwhile even if we only break even since the money is spent before we leave and there will be no bill waiting when we get home. We bought DVC for similar reason. It’s expensive, but now our accomodations are paid for for years.

    In the end, an obsessive focus on saving every penny would not make our vacations better. I would encourage people figure out how they will have the best vacation for themselves, rather than how to save the most money.

    • Pre paying irresponsibly commits $$ to something that is an optional luxury.

      Pre commit to your own cookie jar out whatever

    • Pre paying irresponsibly commits $$ to something that is an optional luxury.

      Pre commit to your own cookie jar or whatever…

      But when you give it to Disney,generally it’s hard to get back if you need out. Also, in time value of $$, you are better off paying as late as possible. People go through such hoops to save money often will just give it away earlier than necessary. That’s a big positive for driving. You don’t incur expenses until you actually go.

      Basically, there’s no cancellation fee if you haven’t already paid and you don’t need your$ back…

    • Time — we’ve done it both ways — prepaying everything including food one trip, and then paying as we went the next. I do think the “best” way will be different for everyone, based on their personality. As for me, I am with you! I was much more relaxed when everything was all paid for. The year we did a pay-as-you-go trip, I didn’t eat anything good — too freaked out about the cost. Granted, I am Anxiety Woman, so I’m constantly playing games with myself to stay chilled out. Both ways are good — it just depends on you and your family. And your last sentence above — VERY WISE WORDS! :)

  • When considering discount room special offers remember that discounts vary based on room type ( deluxe, moderate, value). You can actually sometimes get a cheaper rate at the. Ft Wilderness cabins (moderate – usually 25% off) vs Art Of Animation Suite (value – usually 15% off). :). And Port Orleans Riverside has some rooms that can sleep five (they have a pull down bed for a small child). It’s a moderate resort as well so it’s usually a 25% discount also.

  • The dining plan calculator at this link is another handy tool if you want to see whether it will save you money, or cost you more! http://www.distripplanner.com/

  • Believe it or not, upgrading to club level for a few days on our last trip actually saved us money! We were able to cancel two breakfast reservations and we sampled a few appetizers (and some wine) before we headed out to dinner, so we were perfectly happy just ordering our main course. Also, we simply asked for bottled water and they were more than happy to get them for us, so we bought fewer drink while in the parks. The food/water savings basically offset the higher room cost, and we still got all the little “extras” that go along with club level service.

  • For a fun souvenir that costs less, we bought Disney trading pins from ebay before our trip. the kids split the 20 pins between the 2 of them and brought them into the parks and traded with the Disney employees. As they traded around, they figured out which pins they wanted to collect and enjoyed the experience. I found that you can get 20 pins on ebay for around $20 which is a deal compared to what you would pay for each pin if you bought them in the park. Plus it got them excited for our trip.

    • Wow. I never thought of buying pins to trade off of eBay. We’ve gotten the cheaper mystery packs in the parks before, but $1 per pin? Nice! :)

      • Be careful. Many of these pins sold on eBay and other knock off sites are fake. The pins are not Disney…just junk. We are very careful when trading to look for the pins that come from eBay while in the parks.

  • The way we save money is by getting our season passes and going at least twice a year. Then we take a 2 year break. This saves a lot as we get big hotel and meal discounts with our season passes. Hotel discounts can be as big as 70% off, during the value season! I hate spending a fortune on a hotel room, you’re only there to sleep and take a shower. With our season passes we’re able to stay at some of the delux resorts for the price of a moderate resort during the regular season. I also have a lot of pickey eaters, me included, so we pack a lot of snacks with us. We fly and I dedicate one carry one to snacks/food items. We buy what we can’t take on the flight: milk, bread, etc. when we get there. It saves time and money. I’m fine with eating a PB&J sandwich for lunch, as long as I can get a gourmet apple for my afternoon snack! Packing oatmeal is a huge money and time saver. Easy to pack, fills you up and you save about $5.00 per person on breakfast. Doing little things like this gives us the chance to do a couple of character meals.

  • One way we’ve found to save is to gradually stockpile Disney gift cards from Target. We buy them with our RedCard (5% off) and when we can, pair them with an additional 5% off card we get when we fill 5 prescriptions at the pharmacy.

    The gift cards are accepted at all the Disney restaurants and shops, or you can charge to your room and stop by the front desk of your resort to use them to pay your balance.

    • One note: you need to stop by the front desk at the end of every day to make sure they don’t run it to your credit card first. I’ve heard different threshold amounts trigger the charge ($500 seems most common), so it’s safest just to clear it before the charge cycle runs.

  • We had underestimated food. We ate breakfast at the rental with our food we brought, but because we and our teens were having such a great time in the parks, stayed open to close almost every day we were there and in those 18 hour days, were eating 4 meals a day, there would be a shared late night quick service meals because our snacks and sandwiches were long gone. Also, my husband has a Dole Whip addiction. It’s something that I would plan for the next time.

  • One of the best tips I can give people when it comes to finding the best deals with lodging is to not limit your search to a small area around the resort.

    Expand your search to hotels further away. You will need to add extra travel time to your budget, but the savings you can find being further away can often result in a tidy savings overall. I suggest searching as many booking sites as you can to find the best deals.

  • Great tips – when we went to Disney last December we noticed our food bill was way more than be budgeted for. We found another great site that gave us some good tips as well http://www.budget4disney.com